The list of cities, states and counties suing energy companies continues to grow, as trial attorneys after hefty contingency fees continue their search for their next client.
After a failed attempt by climate litigants in Fort Lauderdale, a spate of activity in Hawaii from lawyers, activists and city officials indicates that the promoters and leaders of the coordinated campaign against fossil fuels have set their sights on Hawaii.
The University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law held an all-star event that included Sher, a leading plaintiffs’ attorney representing twelve municipalities and a fishing trade association in various lawsuits against energy companies, and Ann Carlson, an environmental law professor at UCLA Law School’s Emmet Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. Conveniently, Carlson also consults for Sher Edling on the climate lawsuits the firm has brought forward.
Sher and Carlson were panelists on “Climate Impact Lawsuits: Nuts and Bolts,” which focused on “legal strategies and the rationale for climate impact lawsuits being pursued across the country.” The event was co-hosted and sponsored by the Center for Climate Integrity and the Union of Concerned Scientists, which have both been leading cheerleaders of the climate liability campaign against fossil fuels.
The University of Hawaii event featured a number of other participants and speakers that have advocated for, supported or event assisted in bringing climate change lawsuits against energy producers.
Alyssa Johl sat on the same panel as Vic Sher and Ann Carlson and is a frequent voice in support of climate litigation against oil and gas producers. Johl is a former attorney for the Center for International and Environmental Law, which is a major promoter of the #ExxonKnew campaign, and is behind a shadowy, multi-faceted dark money PR campaign promoting climate liability lawsuits.
Johl currently serves as legal counsel at the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI) – which was a co-host of the University of Hawaii event. CCI is leading a major PR campaign promoting climate liability lawsuits and is tied through Johl and CCI Executive Director Richard Wiles to Climate Liability News. As EID Climate has previously reported, Climate Liability News (CLN) is a dark-money “news” site set up to promote climate lawsuits across the country, with Johl, Wiles, and #ExxonKnew activist Kert Davies representing the entirety of the site’s board.
Last year Amy Westervelt, a writer for CLN, started a podcast called “Drilled” that promotes the climate liability lawsuits. That podcast is executive produced by CCI’s Richard Wiles and funded by CCI’s parent organization, the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD). Emails and other public records revealed earlier this year that IGSD hired a lobbyist to arrange meetings between climate liability attorneys and Ft. Lauderdale city officials in an unsuccessful bid to convince the city to sue energy companies.
At the same University of Hawaii event, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono, who has filed an amicus brief supporting the climate liability lawsuits filed by San Francisco and Oakland, stated that she believes oil and gas companies should be liable for the effects of climate change:
“Oil companies like BP should be held responsible for the damage done to our environment by their activities”
Furthermore, Chris Fletcher, a member of Honolulu’s Climate Change Commission, along with Alyssa Johl, published an op-ed in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser echoing Sen. Hirono’s statements, directly advocating for legal action against energy producers:
“In our view, legal action may be necessary to compensate for damages to the islands. Hawaii needs to continue to show strong leadership and explore new avenues to address the costs of our climate crisis before irreparable damage is done to the islands.” (emphasis added)
Most notably, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has made combatting climate change a priority for his city’s agenda, targeting fossil fuels in the process. Caldwell pledged to eliminate fossil fuels from all public and private ground transportation across Hawaii by 2045 – ignoring that the city’s economy is driven in large part by a robust tourism industry which requires planes and cruise ships powered by petroleum products.
Caldwell is also a member of Climate Mayors, and on June 27th, Honolulu will host the 2019 Climate Mayors Summit, focused on “Navigating City Financial Risk in the Face of Climate Impacts.” Several of the member cities – including New York, Baltimore, Richmond, Boulder, San Francisco – are currently sueing or have sued energy producers.
Immediately following the Climate Mayors Summit (June 28 – July 1), the U.S. Conference of Mayors will host its annual meeting in Honolulu. Caldwell has signed a climate resolution – which will be presented at the meeting – that endorses the climate lawsuits filed by Vic Sher, but ironically opposes the carbon tax plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions supported by everyone from the World Wildlife Fund to Janet Yellen to BP and Shell.
The resolution is co-signed by mayors from Baltimore, Boulder, Salt Lake City, Oakland, Richmond, Santa Cruz, and San Leandro. The Washington Free Beacon reported this week that the Union of Concerned Scientists is paying for the Mayor of Santa Cruz to attend, potentially violating her state’s ethics laws. Many of those mayors represent municipalities that have already pursued litigation against Exxon, Shell, BP and other oil and gas producers – including Oakland and Boulder. The track record of their cases should serve as a clear indicator to the success (or lack there-of) that a similar lawsuit from Honolulu would have.
Oakland and San Francisco’s case against energy companies was dismissed; a federal judge rejected the legal arguments put forth by both cities and confirmed that the courtroom was not the appropriate venue to tackle the global challenges of climate change. New York City’s lawsuit was similarly dismissed.
These municipalities may ultimately receive only a “pittance” of their desired rewards or settlements according to an analysis by the American Tort Reform Association:
“Experience has proven that lawsuits motivated and brought by contingency-fee lawyers on behalf of government entities will not solve these complex public policy issues. Rather, a significant portion of any money obtained will simply line the pockets of plaintiffs’ lawyers. In fact, the litigation may make the situation worse, as duplicative lawsuits filed by cities, towns, and other local entities around the country drain resources, hurt employers, and complicate the ability to reach any resolution.” (emphasis added)
As case after case strikes out in court and are rejected by potential plaintiffs elsewhere in the country, Honolulu should look to lawsuits filed by other municipalities as a cautionary tale – not as a playbook.